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His Toughness Problem—and Ours


Not so long before the war in Iraq was launched, I was the only European at an American dinner party in Brussels. My fellow guests were a motley group of youngish diplomats, think-tank pundits, ex-spooks, and journalists, most of whom had established reputations as promoters of neoconservatism. Many topics were discussed, but two stand out in my memory: French wines and the “projection of force.” Despite the praise for fine French wines, “the Europeans” were rather sneered at, as namby-pamby, frivolous, anti-Semitic appeasers, too far gone in spineless pacifism and political decadence to share America’s burden of projecting force to make the world safe for democracy. They spoke with great confidence about military matters, of which none of them, to my knowledge, had any personal experience.

Listening to them talk, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been a youngish Old Etonian Foreign Office man at a smart London club around the time of the Boer War. I imagine it might have been something like that Brussels dinner party—the same sense of being just within fingertip reach of great power, the heady feeling of shouldering the burdens of that great power, and the contempt for those who fail to understand its basic benevolence, or indeed that a certain amount of unpleasantness (“messy” was the word in Brussels) is inevitable when such benevolence is to be spread forcefully to the benighted world.

If Irving Kristol is the godfather of neoconservatism, Norman Podhoretz is the patriarch. Podhoretz himself might not see all neocons as his intellectual offspring, although his son John has certainly followed in his footsteps. In fact, Podhoretz has a rather narrow definition of neoconservatism. He talks about “repentant liberals and leftists,” mostly Jewish, who broke ranks with the left and “moved rightward” in the 1970s. “Strictly speaking,” he says, “only those who fitted this description ought to have been called neo- (i.e., new) conservatives.” Those who mimic the views of their parents (John P., say, or William Kristol) cannot be called “new.” True, but simply to call them conservatives (or vieux cons, as the French would say) would not do justice to the Napoleonic radicalism of their project.

Since he brings the matter up himself, it is worth pondering why Jews have played such a prominent part in the short history of neoconservatism, despite the fact that most American Jews would still regard themselves as liberals. Much has already been written on this topic, some of it scurrilous; conspiracies and so forth. Could it have something to do with an old attraction to utopian visions of universal liberty, which once drew many Jews to the left? Or with the traditional appeal of strong, benevolent empires, from the monarchy of Franz Joseph to George W. Bush’s republic, as shields against bigots, racists, and tyrants? Of course, the specter of 1938, of not nipping a mortal danger in the bud, has special resonance among many Jews. Then there is the matter of Israel. Podhoretz, for one, felt deeply betrayed by the American left, not to mention “the Europeans,” who became critical of the Jewish state after the 1967 war, and even more so after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

But none of these factors quite explains the obsession with power, specifically US power, and the constant angst that it is being undermined by an elite of treacherous liberals. In his latest book, Podhoretz refers to the “Vietnam syndrome” as an example of “neo-isolationism” and “pacifist sentiment” that are supposedly rife in “the elite institutions of American culture.” This elite appears to be made up largely of that old bugbear of the paranoid right: clever people in New York who run the media, that “effete corps of impudent snobs,” in the words of former Vice President Spiro Agnew.1 To shore up US power, it is essential to mobilize the common, decent, right-thinking people of America against this decadent elite, as Richard Nixon did, and Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. This is the essential message of World War IV, whose publication date falls on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The book expresses a weird longing for the state of war, for the clarity it brings, and for the chance to divide one’s fellow citizens, or indeed the whole world, neatly into friends and foes, comrades and traitors, warriors and appeasers, those who are with us and those who are against.

Podhoretz’s rhetoric of war can be quite zany. He describes the dispute between opponents of Bush’s war and its defenders as “no less bloody than the one being fought by our troops in the Middle East,” indeed as “nothing less than a kind of civil war.” I myself was opposed to the war, and do not always hold tender feelings for my intellectual opponents, but I hardly think of our differences as comparable to the burning of Atlanta or the battle of Fallujah. By the same token, Bush critics in academe are called “guerrillas-with-tenure,” which seems a grandiose description of what are on the whole rather harmless professors.2

The most articulate analysis of the obsession with power and violence was actually written by Podhoretz himself, in 1963, in his famous essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours.” Despite what the title might suggest, it is actually an argument against racism and in favor of miscegenation. When Podhoretz grew up in Brooklyn, the common assumption was that Jews were rich and Negroes were persecuted. This was not how things looked to Podhoretz on the playground of his local public school, where poor Jewish boys like him were regularly being beaten up by Negroes: “There is a fight, they win, and we retreat, half whimpering, half with bravado. My first experience of cowardice.” Negroes, he goes on, “made one feel inadequate. But most important of all, they were tough, beautifully, enviably tough, not giving a damn for anyone or anything…. This is what I envied and feared in the Negro….” And then there were the effete snobs, “the writers and intellectuals and artists who romanticize the Negroes, and pander to them,” and “all the white liberals who permit the Negroes to blackmail them into adopting a double standard of moral judgment….”

The key to Podhoretz’s politics seems to me to lie right there: the longing for power, for toughness, for the Shtarker who doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything, and hatred of the contemptible, cowardly liberals with their pandering ways and their double standards. Since Podhoretz, himself a bookish man, can never be a Shtarker, his government must fill that role, and not give a damn about anyone or anything. And not only the US government, but Israel too. Arik Sharon was a typical Shtarker, and thus much admired. Bibi Netanyahu tries hard to be a Shtarker. The US was enviably tough against the Nazis, and then against the Communists, and is now called to arms once more against the Islamofascists. Since Western Europe seems destined to be “conquered from within by Islamofascism,”3 just as it had been once by Hitler’s blitzkrieg, America must go it alone this time, with a little help from the Brits. As in “World War III” against the Soviet Empire, this World War IV against Islamofascism will be “a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.” The words, quoted by Podhoretz, are George Kennan’s, who regretted having said them, because they were interpreted as a call for military action, which is not what he had intended. Podhoretz uses them as though he had.

When it comes to attitude, then, Podhoretz is not hard to read. When it comes to the specifics of the war, exactly whom we are supposed to be fighting, why it is a fourth world war, and how it relates to earlier wars, he becomes fuzzy indeed. It is not very helpful to compare, as Podhoretz does, Osama bin Laden with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. They were all very nasty, but other than that there is not much to be gained from such comparisons. The differences in relative power, political circumstances, and historical contexts are simply too great. So who are the Islamofascists? George W. Bush had an answer, which pleases Podhoretz so much that he quotes it more than once: “We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century…. They follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.”

Yes, but who precisely are “they”? As so often in the neocon discourse, Bernard Lewis is trotted out to lend some intellectual respectability. Podhoretz cites Lewis’s analysis of Nazi as well as Stalinist influences on the growth of the Baath Party in the 1940s. These influences were real enough. But the Baath Party, founded by two socialists, one of whom was from a Christian family, was not Islamist. It was nationalist, socialist, with large doses of fascism and Stalinism. Saddam Hussein, more a gangster than an ideologue, was certainly not an Islamist. Up to a million men died in his nationalist war, backed by the US, against the Islamist regime in Iran. And Iran’s Islamist revolution was unleashed against the Shah’s secular dictatorship, which was backed by the US too.4 Among the Islamist revolutionaries there are deep differences—hardly mentioned by Pod-horetz—between Sunnis and Shiites, regional insurgents in Southeast Asia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, terrorist gangs in London and the Janjaweed in Darfur. And unlike the Soviet Communist regime or Hitler’s Nazi Party, which ruled over large, militarized states, al-Qaeda is a global network of very loosely affiliated groups, copying each other’s rhetoric and methods through the Internet, without power over any states, let alone large armies.

Now one might say that these differences are meaningless, because “they” all hate America as a matter of common ideology. But even that was not always true. Saddam Hussein was quite happy to receive the likes of Donald Rumsfeld in the 1980s and come to a cozy arrangement with the US. It is true, of course, that Baathists, al-Qaeda revolutionaries, Shiite militias, Islamist insurgents, and terrorist gangs operating in the West are all brutal, dangerous, and capable of inflicting much harm. But to lump them all together as “Islamofascists,” to assume that we are reliving 1938,5 and to put our trust in military invasions as the best way to defend ourselves is a dangerous form of hysteria.

Podhoretz is aware that not all world wars are alike. World War IV has its own special needs and strat-egies. Yet neither Podhoretz nor the “great president” he champions can resist the self-glorifying analogies of World War II. As Podhoretz observes, Bush in September 2001, in “expressing his determination to win the war… was mainly reaching back to the language of Winston Churchill.” Churchill: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end.” Bush: “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” When Churchill spoke, Britain was facing an imminent invasion by the biggest military power in Europe. Bush spoke after one ghastly act of terror by a handful of murderous fanatics mainly from Saudi Arabia.

  1. 1

    The words were spoken by Vice President Spiro Agnew, but written by William Safire.

  2. 2

    Podhoretz is not alone in this tendency. In an open letter to President Bush in The Wall Street Journal of June 8, Fouad Ajami described Lewis “Scooter” Libby as “a soldier in your—our—war in Iraq.”

  3. 3

    As evidence for this Podhoretz quotes from a book by Mark Steyn, entitled America Alone (Regnery, 2006), which argues that white Europeans are being outbred by the Muslims. Statistics are often used to scare us, but are notoriously unreliable. Steyn, a right-wing comic writer, is not an authority on demographics. Since Muslims will probably make up 10 percent of the European population in 2020, they still have a lot of breeding to do before the continent falls into their hands.

  4. 4

    Sometimes Podhoretz’s obsession with toughness spills over in observations that sound remarkably cruel. In his diatribe against President Carter’s reaction to the Iranian Revolution, he suggests that under the Nixon doctrine, as he interprets it, America would have had to acquiesce in “the massacre by Iranian troops of many thousands of demonstrators,” although he doubts whether Nixon himself would have had the “stomach and the political base for such a policy.”

  5. 5

    Bruce Bawer, author of an alarmist tract entitled While Europe Slept (Doubleday, 2006), believes that Europe is living through its “Weimar Moment,” a notion that has a great deal of traction among the neocons.

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